HSC English Standard – Language, Identity and Culture Study Guide

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HSC English Standard – Language, Identity and Culture Study Guide


The Language, Identity and Culture module refers to the unit of study that has been prescribed by NESA to the English Standard course. Broadly speaking, the role of the student is to analyse the ways in which our self-concept, sense of identity and community belonging are shaped by certain texts and features of language. While this may sound extremely vague and therefore quite overwhelming, there are very specific elements that one should ensure is included in their response that the rubric covers.

In this study guide, we will deconstruct the key aspects of the Language, Identity and Culture rubric and how they should be engaged with in a response. Then, we will look at what to expect when sitting Paper 2, as well as a general guide to writing a response for this module.

Prescribed texts

Your school will assign you ONE of the following prescribed texts to study. These texts have been selected by NESA because they, in more ways than one, explore the unique ways in which language and identity share an intimate relationship and ultimately influence each other in a way that is deeply significant for both individuals and communities. Hence, it is important to ask yourself why and how your prescribed text relates to this module exactly.

Prose fiction

  • The Penguin Henry Lawson Short Stories (2009) by Henry Lawson
    • ‘The Drover’s Wife’, ‘The Union Buries Its Dead’, ‘Shooting the Moon’, ‘Our Pipes’, ‘The Loaded Dog’
  • Small Island (2004) by Andrea Levy


  • Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (2013) edited by Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey and Michelle Cahill
    • ‘This is where it begins’ by Merlinda Bobis
    • ‘Home’ by Miriam Wei Wei Lo
    • ‘New Accents’ by Ouyang Yu
    • ‘Mother’ by Vuong Pham
    • ‘Circular Breathing’ by Jaya Savige
    • ‘Translucent Jade’by Maureen Ten (Ten Ch’in Ü)
  • Inside my Mother (2015) by Ali Cobby Eckermann
    • ‘Trance’, ‘Unearth’, ‘Oombulgarri’, ‘Eyes’, ‘Leaves’, ‘Key’


  • Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (2012) by Ray Lawler
  • Pygmalion (2003) by Bernard Shaw
  • Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah (2010) by Alana Valentine


  • Unpolished Gem (2006) by Alice Pung


  • One Night the Moon (2001) directed by Rachel Perkins
  • The Castle (1997) directed by Rob Sitch


  • Reindeer in my Saami Heart (2016) by Janet Merewether

Initial considerations

No matter which text you are assigned as your prescribed text, it must be analysed in terms of the Language, Identity and Culture rubric. Some initial considerations you should deliberate before writing a response in order to consolidate your understanding of the texts and the module include:

  • Exactly which cultures and aspects of culture are being portrayed in the text
  • The composer’s purpose in creating the text—is it to provide commentary on cultural issues, spark a feeling of community in responders, challenge cultural beliefs and stereotypes or a culmination of all of the above?
  • The literary significance of the texts (awards, accolades, critical and commercial reception) suggesting a broader response to their cultural significance in not only the world of art, but in everyday people using them as mediums through which they can better understand others and their own cultural identities
  • How form, structure, genre and style deeply influence the ways in which messages about cultural identity are depicted by the composer and interpreted by the responder

What is culture and identity?

The terms ‘culture’ and ‘identity’ are indeed central to the module. However, they may initially seem very vague and confusing. Truthfully, culture and identity have various definitions – none of which are unanimously agreed upon. If you ask yourself how you would define your own identity, it would be very difficult to narrow such a definition down to one statement. However, generally speaking, there are some ways in which humans tend to categorise and relate their cultural identity to, such as:


  • Ethnicity
  • Race
  • Language/dialect spoken
  • Sexual identity and orientation
  • Socio-economic class
  • Religion
  • Geographical location

It is important to note that cultural identity is not felt in a vacuum – each of these elements interact constantly to form an intangible experience that we understand to be our ‘self.’ Moreover, every person experiences culture in different, often conflicting, ways. Above all, in studying Module A, we should remain sensitive to cultural issues and ultimately understand that our perceptions of what others’ cultures are are often based on rather external cues (such as food, music, dress, language). In reality, culture is made up of various ‘unseen’ aspects, including (but not limited to):

  • Notions of:
    • Friendship
    • Manners
    • Family
    • Leadership
    • Beauty
    • Time
    • Self
    • Fairness and justice
  • Attitudes towards:
    • Death
    • Morality
    • Rules
    • Age
    • Authority
    • Media
    • Animals
  • Approaches to:
    • Religion
    • Marriage
    • Courtship
    • Work ethic
    • Raising children


Indeed, the most significant aspect of culture is that it dictates our every action, decision, belief and thought. Hence, it is imperative that you understand the different definitions of culture and identity, as well as reflect upon their implications for the individual and society.

Deconstructing the rubric

As with any module, we must first look to the Language, Identity and Culture rubric to understand what it really is that we are asked to do. In fact, every potential HSC examination question can come only from this rubric—though at times it could be less obvious and masked by synonymous language—so it is imperative that we study the links between your text and the major points in the Language, Identity and Culture rubric.

Let’s look at some example questions you could receive in the HSC examination and what aspect of the rubric it most closely reflects (remember, some questions can be a combination of different elements of the rubric!). Then, we will deconstruct what the statement actually means and, most importantly, how you can apply it to your response.

The power of language to shape cultural experiences

  • Potential question: To what extent does your text exhibit the complex ways in which language can shape cultural experiences? In your response, analyse the manipulation of the textual features in your prescribed text.
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘Language has the power to both reflect and shape individual and collective identity.’

Language is powerful, and there is no doubt about it. It is the way in which we express our feelings, thoughts and musings to others. We constantly scrutinise and analyse the words of others, particularly in the media today. Without language, it would be very difficult for us to form relationships with others, bond about the things that bring us closer together. Think about it – how different would your life be if you weren’t able to communicate with others? Truthfully, there is only really one answer to this question, which is that life would not even be possible without the existence of language. And this doesn’t just include written language – eye contact, facial expressions, hand movements, colour, body language are all types of language.

This idea extends to the power of language to shape cultural experiences, too. The way in which we understand our own or others’ cultures is dependent on language, whether that is in the form of reading a political article on Facebook about K-pop stars or the stories that our parents tell us about our ancestors and family history. In turn, significant works of art can also influence cultural notions of identity. For example, think of how the Bible has shaped so many of the morals, values, laws and social norms in Western society. Think of the power of Marx’s The Communist Manifesto in revolutionising Russian culture during the Russian Revolution. Think of Anne Frank’s diary and its monumental impact on changing the attitudes of Germans and cultures across the world towards issues such as genocide, anti-Semitism and human rights. Hence, there is a constant interchange between language, identity and culture, where each of these elements are always influencing one another – the bottom line being that language has the power to change our perceptions of what cultural identity is.

Affirming and challenging cultural assumptions

  • Potential question: ‘Cultural generalisations are, at times, inevitable. This, however, does not take away from a story’s ability to challenge and subvert an audience’s expectations about cultural identity.’ To what extent is this statement true of your prescribed text?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘Through their responding and composing students deepen their understanding of how language can be used to affirm, ignore, reveal, challenge or disrupt prevailing assumptions and beliefs about themselves, individuals and cultural groups.’

Everybody holds stereotypes about certain groups of people. This is inevitable, and whilst generalisations are not inherently damaging (they help us to quickly understand and categorise information in the world around us) they definitely can be based on very shallow assumptions of how others act and think. Hence, it is the aim of many composers – particularly those of a diverse cultural group – to challenge, inform and subvert our expectations of identity, whether that is our own or others’.

However, not every text you study will be challenging your assumptions. You may find that some simply affirm what you already believed. Or, perhaps, it is a combination of both – in some respects, your text reveals something new to you, but otherwise it holds up to your expectations of what a particular culture is. Regardless, your job is the same. As a student studying this module, you must analyse the ways in which composers do this. In other words, what language devices and techniques are being used to portray these complex, diverse and challenging representations of cultural identity?

It is also impertinent to think of the cultural impact of the text on the beliefs of its immediate and eventual audiences in relation to this particular rubric statement. Try to put yourself in the shoes of somebody who studied your text when it was first published – what kind of contextual concerns does the text address, how might have the general population received the text, what could be the lasting impact of this text on future audiences? Incorporate these ideas into an argument for a more complex, thoughtful take on this rubric statement.

Individual and collective identity

  • Potential question: Discuss the ways in which your prescribed text has explored both individual and collective notions of identity.
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘Students study one prescribed text in detail, as well as a range of textual material to explore, analyse and assess the ways in which meaning about individual and community identity, as well as cultural perspectives, is shaped in and through texts.’

As mentioned earlier in this study guide, the notion of identity is incredibly multifaceted and complex. It means something different to every person and group. Hence, it is important to make a distinction between the notions of individual and collective identity.

What separates the two? Truthfully, the difference between these categories is not exactly clear. What the individual considers to be their identity can and does intertwine with community notions of identity. Most simply, collective identity can be defined as the sense of belonging and commonality between a group of people whereas individual identity is a person’s unique experience of this. Individual identity can be the intersection of various group identities, but a community’s identity is also comprised of various individuals and their experience of cultural identity. The relationship between these two ideas is hence very clearly interlinked.

Individual identity

Examples of individual identity include:

  • Memories and experiences
  • Family life
  • Personality traits
  • Physical traits
  • Gender
  • Childhood and upbringing
  • Hobbies
  • Career
  • Moral values
  • Social standing at school
  • Academic achievement


Collective identity

Collective identity can generally be defined as being more broad and applicable to the experiences of a group of people. For example:

  • Contextual era
  • Dominant political discourses
  • Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Geographical location
  • Language spoken

Textual form and conventions

  • Potential question: Explain the significance of form in expressing and evaluating cultural perspectives in your prescribed text.
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘They investigate how textual forms and conventions, as well as language structures and features, are used to communicate.’

Form plays one of the most integral roles in the representations of identity. In fact, the form of the text itself can be an important commentary on the human experience of culture. Discussing form in an answer is certainly ideal, but not essential unless the question specifically asks for it. Even still, it should always be considered whilst undertaking a study of the texts and explored whenever possible. The following are examples, but certainly not a complete or even extensive list, of common features or tropes that can be found in familiar text types:


  • Nature of language used
    • Is it sparse, eloquent and flowery, colloquial or meant to reflect a certain dialect/accent? Why would the author choose to write the voice way?
  • Linear/non-linear structure
    • Flashbacks

Film and media

  • Camera angles
  • Lighting as a means to create mood
  • Taking advantage of the multimedia form—using music, visual techniques and dialogue/text to portray their message instead of simply written language as prose fiction would do


  • Symbolism
  • Structuring of the stanzas
  • Persona
  • Musicality
    • Remember that poetry is meant to be heard, and not simply read. There is careful section made by poets as to the actual sounds of the words or phrasing they adopt as to aurally accentuate certain features


  • Metatheatricality
    • Direct engagement with the audience works best in forms such as theatre due to the immediate presence of the audience in front of the stage
  • Stage effects
  • Staging and set design
    • What directions does the playwright give in the script? Why do they add these details (or, conversely, choose to leave it vague enough for the production’s director/actors to interpret it themselves)?


  • Rhetorical questioning
    • Similar to theatre, live speeches are often given in the immediate presence of an audience, meaning good speeches must be able to directly engage with the responder
  • Anecdotes


  • Romance
  • Tragedy
  • Black humour
  • Absurdism
  • Dystopian fiction
  • Historical monograph

Contextual movements

  • Modernism
  • Feminist
  • Regency era

It is not enough to simply state these aspects of the text’s form. Depending on the texts you are studying, analyse its genre and context and understand how every sequence of the work is a deliberate choice made to contribute to these features (or, perhaps, challenge or pioneer them). Think of the form, structural features and nature of language as deliberate choices made in order to most effectively tell the story they needed to tell in the text—they aid composers in exploring language, culture and identity as a medium through which they can communicate with the responder.

Information, ideas, values and attitudes

  • Potential question: How are the ideas, values and attitudes of your text expressed by the composer, and what effect does this have on audiences?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘… communicate information, ideas, values and attitudes which inform and influence perceptions of ourselves and other people and various cultural perspectives.’

As previously established, identity can comprise of a complex combination of facets and aspects. Each culture – as well as each individual that identifies with that culture – holds its own values, attitudes and ideas about human existence. Our cultural identity can also affect our knowledge of ourselves as well as other people. It is necessary for you, as the student, to consider all of these issues when writing about how texts portray culture and identity.

One important note is to make a distinction between these four notions of information, ideas, values and attitudes, as these terms are not necessarily interchangeable. Information refers to the knowledge that we have of something, the facts and beliefs that we hold. It may not be complete (and, in most cases, such a feat would be impossible), but it is our perception of what is true and false about a particular subject. Ideas refer to the conception of something, like a thought, as a result of the knowledge and information we have. Values are what we believe to be important to us and hold dear to our hearts – for example, ambition, family, kindness and freedom can be values, whereas social class, politics, war and growing up are themes, not values. Lastly, attitudes are our opinions about certain themes. Using the given example above, our cultural attitudes towards politics could be that the government should not have any say in the freedoms of individuals.

Ensure that you familiarise yourself with these definitions such that, if your exam question were to include these terms, you know exactly what to write about. If you take the wrong definition of a term, your mark will be negatively impacted.

Writing a Language, Identity and Culture essay

What to expect from Paper 2

Now that you have familiarised yourself with precisely what NESA is asking of you in this module, you should begin to understand what you should expect from Paper 2. The following is a summary of key points you should know long before going in to the exam:

  • Paper 2 consists of three sections
    • Section I – Module A response
    • Section II – Module B response
    • Section III – Module C response
  • It will be 2 hours of writing time, with an additional 5 minutes reading time (you will not be able to mark your page in any way during this time)
    • This means you should be devoting approximately 40 minutes to each section. While you don’t have to evenly divide time between the three modules, we recommend that you stick to this guideline as much as possible
  • All parts are out of 20 marks each
  • You must only write in blue or black pen

Being a guide to Module A, this study guide will focus on Section I. This section is relatively straightforward in that you are given one question only and are expected to write a full essay with an introduction, body paragraphs and a conclusion. The question will draw from any aspect of the Language, Identity and Culture rubric (including specifying form!), though it may sometimes include quotes and extracts or rewrite statements from the rubric in a different way. You must come prepared having studied your prescribed text in great depth.

Constructing an essay

In any English essay, the following structure should generally be followed.

  • Introduction: 6 sentences maximum, approximately 150 words
    • General statement about the module (e.g. ‘Culture and language have a reciprocal relationship – each informs the other in significant ways.’)
    • Thesis statement that defines key terms of the question and makes a judgement on the question asked
    • Introduction of texts
      • Title, composer, date of publication and form
    • Conclude using an evaluative adverb to demonstrate how you will develop a thoughtful response
  • 3 – 4 body paragraphs: 200 – 300 words
    • Topic sentence: explicitly reference language from the question, restate your thesis in terms of your theme
    • Context/elaborate sentence(s): emphasise more specifically what you mean by the topic sentence, especially in terms of what happens in the text. Two sentences maximum
    • Analysis: using evidence to support your topic and elaboration sentences—there must be a direct link or progression of logic made between the analysis and the argument. Deconstruct approximately two quotes, but ensure that you are focused on quality over quantity
    • Concluding sentence: use an evaluative adverb such as purposefully, cleverly, insightfully (e.g. Significantly, this text projects the necessity of … ) in order to assess the question and your argument as a whole
  • Conclusion
    • Re-address main ideas/topic sentences of body paragraphs
    • Make an overall judgement about the texts in terms of the question
    • Optional: finish with an insightful afterthought about the role of texts in our cultural experience

Of course, this is only a general guide to writing a sound essay. As frustrating as it can be to hear, there is simply no single scaffold you can follow to impress a marker, as each module will have different requirements, every student’s writing style will differ, and markers will have different tastes.

The most important advice to keep in mind when writing an essay is to have a strong thesis. Learn to define the question in your own terms—this is what your thesis is, not simply a restatement of the question. By defining the key phrases in the introduction, you can manipulate any given question so that it fits your plan/ideas about the text. If you state this thesis at throughout your body paragraphs (not simply the topic and concluding sentences), your essay will have a strong argument and persuade the marker that you are confident in your case. It is similarly important to ensure that your arguments always come back to the intersection of language, identity and culture. That is, you should be able to clearly explain how your quotes or ideas are relevant to the prevailing concept of cultural identity and how that is expressed through language features.


The Language, Identity and Culture module can certainly seem extremely overwhelming at times. There are as many aspects of the rubric to familiarise yourself with as there are aspects to the relationship between language, identity and culture itself—that is, after all, the overarching purpose of this module. It seeks to encourage you to understand precisely how art can be used as a facet to both influence and express the diverse relationships we have with our identity.

Final tips

  • Avoid writing memorised essays. It is incredibly easy to recognise when a student has done so, and markers are ultimately judging you based on how well you are able to think critically and not simply regurgitate an essay
  • Write lots and lots of practise essays. You may (and should) begin setting no timer so that you can clearly express your thoughts without timed pressure, but gradually move on to putting yourself under exam conditions so that the actual assessment will feel familiar to you. This, as well as actually writing essays out on paper and not simply on a computer, is going to make a huge difference that is relatively simple to adopt
  • Themes and rubric statements can and do mix. For example, the rubric notions of ‘culture’ and ‘identity’ often intertwine. This is because texts are not produced against and life is not experienced through such distinct lines or categories. They are only here to provide basic structure to your essay so that you and the marker can better understand the point you are trying to make
  • It is ideal to discuss form in your essay even if the question does not ask for it. Of course, in that case, it would not have to be your primary concern, but even a sentence or two about the structural features or language used in the texts could show the marker that you really understand the relationship between texts and cultural identity
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